The Failure of Airport Security

Over the past 9 years, we have been subjected to increasingly intrusive inspections if we

Full Body Scanner

Full Body Scanner

wish to board an airplane. Most of these ‘security measures’ have been accepted by the traveling public as a reasonable compromise between safety and personal liberties. So far.

I think everyone would agree that no one should be allowed on a plane with a gun or large knife. Given the ubiquity of passthrough scanners and x-ray checked for bags, this became essentially a non issue since the spate of hijackings back in the 1970s. Than came September 2001, and the attacks in the US. After that, the US government made the decision that very possible risk be removed from passenger attacks while in flight. As new means of smuggling bombs aboard (shoes, underwear) were attempted, the security tightened, and continues to tighten.

Recently, full body scanners and more intrusive pat-down techniques have been implemented in both Canada and the US. For example, last July I was returning from a wedding in Ottawa and was pulled out of the line-up when I set off the alarm. I was wearing denim shorts, a light t-shirt and sandals. A careful examination by the wand showed that the rivets in my shorts had set off the alarm. Last year, that would have been enough, but this time, I was told I must either pass through the scanner or be subjected to a pat down. Why? Unless they were going to do a cavity search, there was nowhere else to look. I opted for the phone booth, and a young woman examined the image of my naked body and decided I wasn’t a serious threat.

In my mind, one of the more disturbing aspects of this, is that it doesn’t make us safer. It increases cost, time, and frustration, and doesn’t accomplish a damned thing. The concept of treating all passengers equally is the wrong approach. Profiling works, it has been used in Israel for many years, and no flight from Tel Aviv has ever been hijacked or blown up.

This success is due to a sophisticated system that combines intelligence reporting, profiling, and state-of-the-art technology for detecting weapons and explosives.

The screening process

includes a 25-second interview in which agents determine why a passenger has come to the airport, where he or she has been and is going, and the person’s general background.  “Your aim is to locate, to find the one passenger that is a terrorist and is carrying explosive material under his possession. You have to characterize the passengers and  to focus on those who are suspected and it’s less than one percent,” Schiff said.

Narrowing the number of people to scrutinize means agents can clear thousands of passengers more quickly than if every one has to undergo thorough body and luggage searches.

Israeli security agents say it would probably be impossible for someone like the suspected Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board an airplane at Ben Gurion without being stopped. It He was a 23-year-old Muslim male traveling alone, without checked luggage, and a ticket paid in cash.

This profiling is not necessarily racist (although it is in Israel) and in some cases it should be. The focus is on the passenger and the situation. In North America, if the person had a shaved head with swastikas tattooed on his forehead, it might be worthwhile to check him out. Given the fact that animal rights groups and anti-abortionists have been responsible for the most terrorist attacks in North America, it seems to me that these people and their travel actives should be monitored. Around the world, different groups have targeted their specific ‘enemies’. Muslims, Basque separatists, Irish extremists, Sikhs, and many other have all been known to commit terrorist acts. I can’t see the harm to the public in profiling members of these groups.

Last January following the ‘underwear bomber’s’ successful boarding, but unsuccessful explosion, one American commentator referred to airport security  as Maginot Line security.

At about the same time, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy commented that:

An understandable kneejerk reaction is to say that no price is too high to pay for saving lives. But a moment’s reflection suggests that isn’t true. For instance, let’s say that we could reduce terrorist attacks on airplanes to zero by subjecting every passenger to a strip and body cavity search, and having all baggage searched by hand. Most people would still conclude that the benefit isn’t worth the cost in resources, lost time, dignity, and privacy.

An important related point is that we should not impose severe burdens on air travelers whose main effect is simply to divert terrorists to other, “softer” targets. Even if costly and intrusive measures succeed in providing perfect security for airline passengers, they still would not be worth it if the terrorists simply switch to other targets that are comparably attractive from their point of view. In Europe and Israel, the terrorists have reacted to improvements in airport security by attacking trains, subways, university campuses, and other areas where large numbers of people gather in places that are harder to secure than airports and planes. That doesn’t mean that we should have no airport security at all. But it is a factor that weighs against adopting extremely costly and/or highly intrusive security measures. Even if such policies reduce the risk of terror attacks on planes, they still may not be worth their cost because they might fail to reduce the net loss of life caused by terrorism overall.
Similarly, if we impose too many hassles on airplane passengers, more people will travel by train or bus, both of which are much easier for terrorists to attack than aircraft are. Others might choose to make long trips by car. Cars rarely make good targets for terrorists. But traveling a given number of miles by car exposes you to a much higher risk of death or injury by ordinary accidents than traveling the same distance by plane. Again, the net impact might actually be to increase loss of life rather than reduce it.

US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this week that

her department is considering beefing up security on trains, ships and mass transit amid a public backlash over the body scanners and “enhanced” pat-downs at airports across the country.

No one is suggesting we should ignore airport security or other threats, however, since we haven’t been focusing our efforts selectively, we are losing the freedoms we are supposed to be protecting.

Besides, there are too many examples of the current security failing, just ask Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame

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7 Responses to The Failure of Airport Security

  1. Mulligan says:

    But, were one of your loved ones the victim of a terrorist attack, I am confident your position on forgoing having the TSA or the Canadian government doing what it could to make us safer would change…much as the tune of those calling for a day of protest changed…when the time came for them to put themselves at inconvenience in the airports. People say one thing without conviction or forethought all the time. And people have a habit of saying one thing on-line. When reality is staring them in the face, things are entirely different.

    You said: “No one is suggesting we should ignore airport security or other threats,”

    You have also said that these measures do not make us “safe” in a suggestive manner that portrays others as believing that we are “safe” because of these measures. Certainly, terrorist just have to get it right once. No one is suggesting that the measures we now have deliver absolute safety. Can we ever say that any measures will make us safe? A reasonable person or argument cannot or would not say that. Not the TSA, any government or myself has said anything that, so why are you presenting that position as one you will argue against? Do you wish to portray all who disagree with you having the belief that “safe” is what we now have or is attainable?

    There are things that can be done to make us “safer”, which is what this is all about. Why not present your views about what you think would be acceptable measures to make us safer while preserving our rights? Then I can pick apart those points, much like you pick apart the measures in effect now.

    Keep in mind the TSA is much more aware of the present threats then you, so your speculation of what would work will put yourself at a severe disadvantage.

  2. Mulligan says:

    P.S. The present procedures would have caught the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber and the Christmas bomber at the gate. Therefore, the present procedures do offer a higher degree of safety and therefore, they do make us safer…contrary to your stated position.

    But I agree with you and do like the Israeli methods better. However, they have only Ben Gurian Airport and a lot fewer flights. To implement this measure at all airports around the world would be logistically impossible.

    • The problem is the present measures were put in place only after the attempts. No matter what security measures are put in place a dedicated terrorist can find a weakness. As Roger Ebert indicates, would you take a job patting down children? How would feel were your child? The answer isn’t more security, it is smarter security.

      Actually, they would not necessarily be caught. Many people have passed through security with things that should have been caught. In the video I posted, the person was carrying 2 foot long razor blades in a cardboard tube (those Mythbuster guys carry a lot of strange stuff) and waked through security. Attacks that have been prevented so far have either been stopped in the planning stage or on the plane.

      Would you be ok with pat downs or strip searches in shopping malls or schools or your place of work? The need to carry papers? Where does it stop?

      Police are constantly trumpeting their successes and crime stats are readily available. I would think that if TSA or Canadian airport authorities were catching criminals of any sort, they would be trumpeting their safety.

      The question I am posing is how many freedoms would you give up in the name of ‘safety’

  3. Mulligan says:

    “The problem is the present measures were put in place only after the attempts.”

    First, I know that there are measures in place to keep us safe that we don’t hear about in the news, so saying we are being totally reactive is not true.

    “The answer isn’t more security, it is smarter security.”

    You are arguing that there is only one or the other. You are wrong. And Roger Ebert has become disaffected, bitter and irrelevant.

    How would feel were your child?

    Children can be used as mules. In the Middle East, women have become suicide bombers. The nuttiness of the twisted mind knows no boundaries. Yes, the searching of a child does address a potential threat and therefore would make us “saf-er”. Not “safe”. Knowing everyone on a plane has been searched just makes me feel better about safety then if everyone was allowed to just run on the plane without any regard.

    A common sense approach to protection against terrorism is prevented by political correctness. I am sure you would agree that any person of a visible minority that wishes to do harm would quickly use our rights and freedoms to attack that very method. And, they do.

    We are a long way from accepting the fact that there will be some hurt feelings and some rights lost if we are hoping to in any effective way address the threats we face. But I should be allowed the freedom to choose if I wish to give up some of one to get more of another. And that is what this is. If the need arises for even more security, I am sure the option will be presented to provide for an easier route for those who wish to meet certain criteria.

    There are groups which still face hate and abuse because of who they are (Jewish) while there is no outcry, yet other groups who have faced no backlash since 9-11 use powerful lobby groups to create a farcical image of victim, preventing any real examination of what among them is a threat.

    I would think that if TSA or Canadian airport authorities were catching criminals of any sort, they would be trumpeting their safety.

    Actually, the authorities have identified threats in airports and aircraft. They were “dry runs”. What prevented authorities from acting further? Their “rights”, used by them for their own protection.

    All screeners face a long day on the job. Knowing that in spite of the abuse they face, that they are doing a good job in keeping travelers safe I hope offers them some reward.

    My question would be should your desire for an unlimited (and IMHO unreasonable) freedom of rights be allowed to trump my desire for increased safety? Whose desires are more important? And who are you or anyone to speak out and say that I must see this as a serious and unnecessary erosion of my rights, as do you?

    • We all have differing point where we feel we have given up too much freedom.

      “The answer isn’t more security, it is smarter security.”

      You are arguing that there is only one or the other.
      You are wrong.

      No, I am saying that smarter security is better than more security just for the sake of having more. Putting more locks on a door doesn’t prevent someone from coming in a window. Put on enough locks and if the authorities have the keys, you can’t get out.

      And Roger Ebert has become disaffected, bitter and irrelevant.
      ad hominem and worse than useless argument

      We are all aware of dry runs and tests. What I am talking about are system failures. Again there are no numbers available to determine how many threats have been averted at airports. If they were actually averting credible threats i really think the numbers would be advertised.

      I ask you again, at what point so we draw the line?

  4. Mulligan says:

    I ask you again, at what point so we draw the line?

    We have seen a few isolated, overblown incidents where some uncomfortable, “rights” threatening moments have made to seem to be an issue by the media.

    The left-bias media.

    The media whips up a frenzy in those anxious, frantic Leo Brodericks who shout out about a rights violation at every opportunity. In reality, I think the line we appear to be at has been moved by the reactionary, just to give the impression of a “rights” crisis.

    If governments do become involved and take away my ability to make daily decisions, as liberal progressives want, that will be too far. While liberals have made it a right to successfully be a failure while harder to be successfully a success, we are nowhere near the point where we have given up too much.

    • it seems to me that the right has been the side that has hampered such movements as equal rights for women, people of colour, and gays and lesbians. t just depends upon which rights we are concerned about. I think that in general the left and right are equality to blame for suppression of rights, or problems in society. Many people would also identify with the right on some issues and the left on others.

      If a person supports less gun control and subsidized education and medicare, are they left or right?

      Most thinking people I know – left or right – recognize Leo Broderick as a crank and take as little notice of him as possible.

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